The History (And Mythology) Of 1920s Flapper Culture

The first post of Flapper Month is here! Hope you enjoy!

Bobbed hair! Short skirts! Jazz! The Charleston! All I have to say is those few words, and right away your brain is lighting up and thinking, “Flappers!” It’s been so many decades since the Twenties that they’re almost here again, but to this day, perhaps no other cultural figure (of sorts) from the 20th century is as universally well-known–and well-liked–as the Jazz Age flapper.

Flappers dancing the Charleston on the edge, New York City, ca. 1920s

How could you not like gals who dance the Charleston on building edges?

We all know at least a smidge of 1920s history–a smidge which tends to be, shall we say, a bit vague. It’s usually trotted out like this: For many years the world was a sad glum place full of sad glum Victorians, who were compelled by an unseen force to wear starchy suits and uncomfortable corsets, and who frowned upon all things fun. Then, at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 1920, jazz music came trumpeting down from the sky, long locks of hair plopped to the ground to reveal newly-fashionable bobs, the bottom few inches of all women’s skirts just flew right off, and everyone loosened up their morals and ran off to the nearest bar to drink highballs.

I include a handy scientific illustration:

1920s history meme

What, you feel like a few details are missing? So do I. While it would take a heck of a lot of research to come to a truly thorough understanding of the era, let’s try to sort through the stereotypes and figure out why the world seemed to change so quickly from the horse-and-buggy days to the era of the Tin Lizzie.

The Origin of the Word “Flapper”

There are several explanations for where the term “flapper” came from, and it’s likely that it had more than one meaning until the 1920s. One is that it was a British slang word for “prostitute” (earliest use dates to the 1600s). “Flapper” was also an old term for a young bird whose wings weren’t developed enough to fly. By the turn of the 20th century, it was starting to mean “teenage girl”–because girls who weren’t quite old enough to put their hair up were jokingly compared to antsy young birds.

Flapper ad Rock Island Argus Ill Nov 15 '17

Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois, Nov. 15 1917.

One explanation that is not true is that girls were called “flappers” because they liked to wear unbuckled, flappy galoshes. There was a brief fad for unbuckled galoshes in 1922, thanks to the popularity of Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers (the galoshes mimicked D’Artagnan’s boots with their turned-down tops). However, girls were called “flappers” long before that.

Use of the word “flapper” grew steadily throughout the 1900s and early 1910s, especially in Britain. In a 1911 interview with a New York newspaper, English stage actor Lewis Waller (who had a huge and overly-enthusiastic female following) told the reporter: “It is a word Londoners have given the woman who goes matinee crazy. Rather descriptive, eh?” But by the mid-1910s flapper was beginning to mean “impetuous teenager,” and she was becoming a recognizable stage “type.”

Flapper the day book Chicago Dec. 22 '15

Publicity blurb about a 1915 flapper-themed play (Day Book, Chicago, Dec. 22 1915).

From about 1920 to 1922 the girlish flapper with fashionable clothes–which by then was starting to mean bobbed hair and ever-shortening skirts–was becoming familiar. The Olive Thomas feature The Flapper, released in 1920 just as the Jazz Age was on the horizon, represents a perfect turning point in the culture. Olive plays a daring teenaged ingenue with Mary Pickford-style curls, who adopts more “modern” flapper-ish looks to try and pass as “Oh-h-h, about twenty.” The familiar 1920s look was not quite the common style for a teen, you see.

Photoplay, 1920.

But from 1922 onward, “flapper” was a household word. So how did this happen? What drew young women to become devil-may-care “moderns,” and why in the 1920s in particular?

The Evolution of the Flapper

In the early days of the 20th century, the U.S. (along with many other countries in the world) was beginning to modernize. The Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing and railroads had expanded to all corners of the country. Use of electricity was becoming more widespread, aiding in speedier communication and better technology overall. Cities grew as more people left the countryside to seek work. And since young people were very perceptive to all this modernizing, they began to “modernize,” too.

Image result for young women 1919

Fashionable gals in 1919.

I’m sure that so far, this sounds pretty familiar. So to be more specific, here’s a list of 12 factors that aided the rise of the fun-loving flapper:

1. World War I

This was, as I’ve said in the past, the game-changer of the 20th century. The traumatic effect of this global conflict, resulting in countless deaths of friends, relatives, and neighbors, not only showed the younger generation that life was fleeting, but it also broke down old systems of class differences.

2. The Influenza Epidemic

It’s strange that this world-wide epidemic, which killed up to 40 million people just as WWI was winding down, would be so obscure today, but at the time it would’ve had a profound effect on the young people who lived through it.

3. Jobs and Education

Contrary to what you might hear, for many decades women–mainly single women–were a significant percentage of the workforce. In the 1890s about 25% of single women aged 15-24 had a job, and about 40% of single women aged 25-35. (Very few married women worked.) But when thousands of young men left their workplaces to serve in WWI, more young women filled in for them. Which is not to say that the war = emancipation, just that more young gals had to take on increased responsibility and independence during tough times. These were probable factors in leading to more women attending colleges, too.

4. Getting to Vote

In 1920 the 19th Amendment was fully ratified, representing a turning point for American women and helping make the idea of a “new woman” part of the national conversation. Obviously, it was a pretty big deal.

5. Consumerism

With the rise in manufacturing and an economic boom, there was a rise in consumerism. More and more products were geared toward those young working women with their own money–everything from stockings to deodorant to hair products. Advertising was everywhere–in newspapers, in movie magazines, and plastered on fences and buildings. Store window displays became an art.

6. Popularity of “Motion Pictures”

This is a major one, folks. The young, charismatic actresses of the silent screen probably did more to spread new fads of hairstyles and clothes than anything else–and the newfound popularity of makeup was likely meant to emulate the looks seen onscreen (although the silent screen’s pale skin and dark lip and eye makeup did translate to some rather bold real-life looks!).

7. Automobiles

This was another huge factor in flapper culture, allowing young people to go from point A to point B with greater ease and speed than ever before. We can imagine just how exciting that freedom must’ve seemed.

8. Jazz

There’s a reason the 1920s are called the “Jazz Age”–the newly-popular style of music was the very definition of “modern” to young people. Playing jazz, dancing to jazz, and singing jazz songs became a craze. It was the soundtrack of the decade.

9. Dancing

And speaking of dancing, there were probably few more popular pastimes during the 1910s and 1920s. Most youth had their favorite dance hall–the great-grandmother of the club. It’s thought that the love of dancing is ultimately what lead to the “flapper dress”–the light, straight, usually corset-less frock that made it much easier to do the Charleston or the tango.

10. Novels

Popular novels, especially romance novels, are thought to have had an impact on young women of the ’20s, such as big sellers like Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks, E.M. Hull’s The Sheik, and Percy Marks’s The Plastic Age.

11. Comic Strips

Newspaper comic strips, both single- and multi-panel, were a huge part of pop culture back in the day. They not only influenced the “cartoony” look and gags of many silent comedies (some cartoonists even wrote gags for screen comedians), but comic strip characters popularized various slang terms–and slang, as we know, made up a kind of flapper language.

12. Booze and Cigs

In spite of Prohibiton (which contrary to widespread belief was fairly successful), many folks managed to sneak drinks at the local speakeasies–gin blossoms and highballs were your standard choices. And smoking was a sure-fire way for a confident young flapper to shock her elders (or even her friends).

Now that we have some insights into the era, how can we account for that decade’s unique “look”?

The Evolution of Flapper Fashion

Probably the biggest widespread myth of sorts assumes that flapper culture burst into history with lightening speed–this Smithsonian article is a perfect example:

In the age before the Roaring Twenties, women were still wearing floor-length dresses. Waists were cinched. Arms and legs were covered. Corsets were standard on a daily basis. Hair was long. The Gibson girl was the idealized image of beauty. And the Victorian attitudes toward dress and etiquette created a strict moral climate. Then the 1920s hit and things changed rapidly.

Ah, Smithsonian–surely you, of all institutions, can do better. Here’s where I must put out the reminder that the Edwardian era existed, and pull out my handy graphic:
Victorian Edwardian fashion

NOT THE SAME THING.

The 1890s Victorian hourglass shape, with floor-sweeping skirts, was old hat by the 1900s, when women were into S-curve corsets (the “pigeon-breast” look). By the 1910s those were out of style and gals were adopting looser waists and tapering, shorter skirts, which, yes, exposed the ankles. Sometimes they were even a little shorter, you guys. If you could travel back in time and ask an Edwardian woman if she thought exposed ankles were shocking, she would’ve burst out laughing at you for asking such a silly question.

Image result for 1915 fashion illustration

Two important players in 1910s fashion were Coco Chanel, with her elegant casual wear, and French designer Madeleine Vionnet, who popularized light dresses and elegant bias cuts. As women became more interested in physical fitness, thanks to role models like Annette Kellerman, sportswear and light bathing suits became more popular. Skirts, already a bit shorter in the 1910s, would rise to slightly above knee-length by the mid-1920s and would actually start getting longer again by the end of the Jazz Age.

Image result for flapper dress 1929

Myrna Loy in a fancy (and calf-length) evening gown.

And what of bobbed hair? It seems to have been adopted here and there by stage dancers in the early 1910s, who found it easier to dance without heavy updos. But who started the trend for once and for all? The wildly popular Irene Castle, of the Vernon and Castle dancing team, who debuted her new look in 1915.

Page

Washington Herald, February 28, 1915.

Bobbed hair was a daringly modern look at first, of course. Not until the 1920s was short hair de rigueur–the same with makeup, which became easier to apply and carry around (especially those ubiquitous powder puffs).

Flappers on Film

A 1922 Motion Picture Weekly article about Marie Prevost’s A Dangerous Little Demon, aimed at getting exhibitors to rent the film, said the big draw was: “The appeal of the flapper story; the thing that everyone goes to see whether they think it’s going to be good or not, simply because they love the flapper herself.”

Indeed, flapper culture was big business for Hollywood in the 1920s. Early actresses with flapper-ish airs included Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas and Dorothy Gish. Post-1920, actresses such as Gladys Waton, Marie Prevost, and Viola Dana were among the first to be proclaimed as “flapper types.”

Image result for flappers 1920s dance hall

Then Colleen Moore starred in Flaming Youth (1924), debuting her up-to-the-minute Dutch-style bob and defining “flapper” for a generation.

Image result for colleen moore

Other flapper stars followed, such as megastar Clara Bow, and Joan Crawford and Louise Brooks. Most “flapper films” were light comedies, some showing good girls at least trying to act bad, or naughty-but-nice girls having a good ol’ time before finally settling down for romance. “College films” were also part of the flapper genre. These movies were perhaps what “mainstreamed” the flapper in 1920s culture and made bobbed hair and shorter skirts everyday styles.

What Society Thought

Today, folks tend to think of flappers chiefly in terms of being more sexually adventurous than in previous generations, their Elders Frowning upon them. That was certainly a big conversation topic back in the day. But in a general sense being a flapper meant being daring, mischievous and fun-loving, and very much interested in all things modern. When The Flapper magazine debuted in 1922, it came with the tagline: “Not for old fogies.”

Girls Gone Wild: 1924

Image Credit: Shorpy

It’s interesting to see what the flappers’ contemporaries thought of them. This 1922 Cincinnati newspaper article, which discussed whether flappers were as common as people thought, described them as trying as hard as possible to rebel:

collage - Besides being young and supposedly flighty, the...

Here’s some quotes from the same article from different Cincinnati community leaders, discussing whether flappers’ influence was worrisome or merely exaggerated. The discussion had more nuance than you’d expect:

Miss Josephine Simrall, dean of a woman’s college, stated: “Personally, I have never met the flapper…I suppose she exists, for one hears a great deal about her these days, but I know of her customs and manners only by vague hearsay…”

Educator Edward D. Roberts said: “Fundamental qualities of girlhood today seem no different than in the generation when I was in school, nor, so far as I can judge from such descriptions as remain, of the still earlier ones of which there is no record.”

Judge Charles W. Hoffman declared: “..I believe the flapper must be one who has nothing to do but follow a lot of other people who have no more to do than she has. Hard work is an evil; being a flapper is not. But I have the greatest faith in the world in our women of to-day. I think the young girls…have a new road before them; changes are going to come, but I believe the world is going to be because of them a better one in which to live…Forget the flapper as a title, but guard against the things which the flapper does in herd spirit…She always has been with us under different names.”

Rev. Dr. Jesse Halsey said: “The flapper is one of our post-war inheritances. She will pass with time. In the meantime she is helping along the depression of moral acuteness that made her possible…Hearsay has made up many a mind, and hearsay has said it is fashionable, chic, smart, what you will, to be ‘fast.’ So far as I can see it is merely that at which the flapper is aiming.”

And a local hotel manager stated, “I am astounded at the young people I see ‘daring’ to do this and that. Yes, that, I believe, is the whole sum and substance of the problem–the desire to ‘dare’ to do what is neither noble nor naive.”

Image result for flappers 1920s

Young people themselves were also eager to share opinions. After writer Martha Lee penned a series of sensational “flapper expose” articles for the Baltimore Sun in 1922 (1922 was a banner year for flapper awareness, as you’ve probably noticed) some of them weighed in:

“I am a modern undergraduate in a typical American university, and I flatly deny that conditions as Mrs. Lee paints them exist here today. No-one will deny that ‘petting,’ so-called, is practiced. It is, however, a small minority who go in for that sort of thing…”

“If a modern girl of today is modest and retiring, wears corsets and conducts herself as her grandmother did, what is she? Why, a wall flower of course…It is the ‘flapper’ with the bobbed hair, painted face, short skirts and corsetless figure who is the most popular girl today.”

“I am one of those ‘unfortunate young married bridge playing, cigarette-smoking, brainless dolls,’ as she calls us, and it really is a most unfair criticism. There may be a few who feed their husbands from the corner delicatessen, but not enough to warrant this outburst…”

“…If these ‘jazz reformers’ would only buy themselves a pair of specs and take another look they wouldn’t find one-half as many young girls and boys in their teens and early twenties [in dance halls] as they do ‘old men and women.’ When I say ‘old’ I mean men and women past 35. I know. I go to dance three or four times in a week and sometimes more, and I don’t always go to the same hall either.”

Image result for 1920s teenage flappers

This are just a few little peeks into the national conversation at the time. Some thought flappers were immoral, some thought they were just fun-loving; some thought they were bubble-brained, others thought they were independent-minded; some felt they were just normal, fad-conscious teens, and some didn’t think true flappers were even that common at all.

Whatever the opinion, what’s true is that flappers ended up having a big impact on popular culture–and, if you count the consumerist appetite for fashion and film, even the economy. The idea of the “flapper” would become increasingly generalized to mean “fashionable young gal” throughout the 1920s. By the 1930s, she would be declared out of date. But the mythos of the adventurous, bold flapper with the zest for life has lived on ever since.

Image result for vintage photo flappers

Perhaps, when all is said and done, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the one who put it best:

“It’s rather futile to analyze flappers. They are just girls–all sorts of girls. Their one common trait being that they are young things with a splendid talent for life.”

Image result for young women 1919

Sources:

Scott Curtis et al., Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Lee, Martha. “Jazzing Flapper Now a Person of Importance.” Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1922.

Fetta, Emma L. “Flapper Aided By Publicity.” The Enquirer, Cincinnati, May 14, 1922.

Goldin, Claudia. “The work and wages of single women, 1870-1920.” Journal of Economic History 40(1), 1980, 81-88. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:2643864

North, S.N.D. “Statistics of Women at Work.” Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907. https://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/00779830ch1.pdf

Blocker, Jack S. “Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation.” American Journal of Public Health 96.2, 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470475/

https://newspapers.com

http://lantern.mediahist.org

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/flapper.html

http://glamourdaze.com/category/1920s-fashion

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16 thoughts on “The History (And Mythology) Of 1920s Flapper Culture

  1. Excellent post….great research😊 My Dad said that Aunt Audrey was very young flapper who help smuggle booze from Canada LOL She loved to shock the family with her “antics” Everything you described hit the mark concerning flappers. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

  2. Hey Lea- I gotta tell you, I love this whole idea of yours. I had no idea I was so interested in flappers until I got your email announcing Flapper Month and found I was all excited about it (“jazzed”, if you will. 😉)
    Great article! You make all that mind-blowing research seem easy. 😁 Can’t wait to see what else you’ve got in store!

    • “Jazzed” about Flapper Month–I like it! 😀 There’s so much to write about that it’s almost hard to decide what to post. Maybe a Flapper Month 2 may be in order one day…!

    • Wow, that’s a coincidental article–mild SPOILER, but I’m planning on reviewing those films myself this month! 😀

      Thanks for the compliments, they’re very much appreciated!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article about flapper fashion. Yes, most people think 1920’s fashion just appeared after the Victorian era and neglect the Edwardian period. I also think that the fashion designer Paul Poiret first introduced corset-less fashion, but Chanel took it to a new level. Also, in the early part of the 1920’s there was a Spanish trend in fashion with large tortoise shell hair combs and lots of ruffles and flounces. I am an amateur fashion historian and I am glad you wrote such an accurate article. I am looking forward to more articles about flappers.

    • Thank you for reading, Josie! I appreciate you fashion historians–I can imagine what a lot of details you have to wade through, considering how styles back then changed from season to season! (Or even month to month!)

  4. Fantastic article, Lea, oh my gosh!!! Definitive!!!
    Hey, speaking of fantastic…and something pertinent!…. in the 70s/early 80s, a short film was made of F. Scott Fitzgeralds short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” starring Shelly Duvall, Veronica Cartwright, Bud Cort and Dennis Christopher. It is fantastic…and fascinating. It shows how flappers…and bob haircuts in particular….were viewed in 1920 (hint: scandalous!!!). This is a fantastic, beautiful production (only 40 minutes….and introduced by Henry Fonda!). Highly recommended and is almost a dramatic counterpoint to this very article by our Lea! Enjoy!

    • That sounds wonderful! I read some of that story in preparation for this month, in fact–I was hoping to write something about Fitzgerald (being kind of important to flapper culture and all) but might not be able to fit it in. He was a St. Paul native, and I live fairly close by, so it would be cool to take some photos of where he lived and worked.

  5. Pingback: Whoopee Booties, 1929 | witness2fashion

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